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The Local and the Global in a Culture of Encounter: The Need for Priorities

By: David Hollenbach

August 23, 2022

Religions and Encounter as a Global Challenge

As we seek to respond to Pope Francis’ call for a culture of encounter, we need to address the tensions that can arise between universal ethical commitments that reach across borders and duties to protect people’s more local and distinctive identities. Commitments both to the common humanity of all persons and to the protection of people’s distinctiveness can be found in most moral and religious traditions.

For example, both Judaism and Christianity hold that every person has a sacredness due to being created in the image and likeness of God, and this sacredness reaches across the borders that create people’s distinctive identities. In Islam, the Quran proclaims that the human race was created by Allah as umma wahida, “one community” (Sura 2: 213). Muslims, therefore, have duties to support human unity across national and religious divisions. Other traditions make similar universalistic moral claims. 

Nevertheless, these traditions also affirm that the national, cultural, and religious differences among peoples have positive ethical value even in the midst of today’s growing global interdependence. For example, Judaism holds that God’s covenant with Israel gives the Jewish people a distinctive religious and national identity. This leads many Jews to recognize that they have a duty to respect all peoples’ religious and cultural differences. Thus, the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argued that Judaism affirms the “dignity of difference.” Failure to respect people’s differing identities can itself lead to injustice and oppression.

There are strands of Catholic tradition that also call for respect for the distinctive identities of peoples. Thomas Aquinas argued that a proper ordering of our love for different persons (the “ordo amoris”) implies that it can sometimes be legitimate to show special care for those who are nearer, such as one’s family members, fellow citizens, or members of one’s religious community.1 

Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama has recently echoed Aquinas’ observations on the importance of those nearer to us: “People feel the strongest bonds of affection for those closest to them, such as friends and family; as the circle of acquaintance widens, their sense of obligation inevitably attenuates. . . . For most people around the world, the country remains the largest unit of solidarity to which they feel an instinctive loyalty.”2 Thus, Fukuyama sees national community as indispensable for human well-being. 

Though Fukuyama rightly notes the importance of local and smaller communities, he too quickly dismisses the importance of the universal, cosmopolitan duties stressed by Pope Francis. But acknowledgement of the importance of both the local and the global means we need to determine when responsibility to one’s more intimate community takes priority over responsibilities to people in the larger global community and vice versa.3 To develop such priorities, one can draw on some ethical criteria that arose from reflection on a tragic case that occurred in New York City in 1964, where a young woman was assaulted, stabbed, and died a slow death while 38 nearby people watched and did nothing. This case suggested that duties to strangers can take priority over duties to fellow community members when the strangers are in great need, when one has the capability to alleviate the need, and when the burdens of response that are not disproportionate to the needs one is trying to alleviate. Though a community has responsibilities to its own members, in-group responsibility can be overridden when persons beyond one’s proximate relationships will face great harm if one does not take action.

The classic principle of subsidiarity can also help determine when one’s local relationships should take priority and when one’s duties to those who are more distant are more important. Subsidiarity affirms that there are special duties within smaller and more proximate communities, but that when there is serious need at a greater distance or when local communities cannot or will not respond to this need, larger regional communities or the international community as a whole have a duty to help those in need.4 This helps set priorities among local and global responsibilities.

The need for such priorities was evident in Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J.’s call at the May 2022 Rome conference to find ways to respect both the differences among the cultures of our world and the common humanity of all persons despite their differences. Such priorities can guide us as we seek to make the hard choices that arise in the interaction of the world’s diverse communities. When those at a distance are in great need, and when we can assist them without having to take on disproportionate burdens, we should follow the example of the Good Samaritan and come to the aid of the needy. On the other hand, when the distinctive identity of a community faces domination that echoes the colonialism of the past, such domination should be resisted. Achieving an appropriate balance of our commitments to the global and the local, therefore, will call both for astute social analysis and for the practical wisdom traditionally called prudence. 

1 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 26, esp. art. 6.

2 Francis Fukuyama, “A Country of Their Own: Liberalism Needs the Nation,” Foreign Affairs, May/June, 2022: 88.

3 Here I reiterate some reflections developed at greater length in my Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019), chap. 7. The norms suggested here initially developed in John G. Simon, Charles W. Powers, and Jon P. Gunnemann, The Ethical Investor: Universities and Corporate Responsibility (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 22-25.

4 The initial formulation of the principle of subsidiarity was in 1939 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, nos. 79-80.